Observing Turner in observation


I am constantly staring at Turner… which painting depends upon the second in which each word in this sentence was penned, for Turner observed, and I am observing Turner in observation. He studied and painted, as many artists before him, his environs… the Thames and its horizons in twilight, dawn and dusk, and the many refractions of light which would feed his imagination as he walked the shores each evening. Turner looked at what was around him, and projected that locality as a universe, which enabled him to transform the shores of the Thames into any point upon the globe that he wished. He was an essential and eloquent Romantic, in that his paintings championed the feelings of the artist for that fortunate observer… emotion and sublime respect for nature. His wisdom lay in the tradition of aesthetic transcendence… of the ability to substitute this effluent waterway… it’s reflections of the sun and silhouettes of the shoreline into any shoreline he desired. His methodical, obsessive eye fed this hard drive of his mind with the lapping of water as sunlight, disappearing in the evening, or emerging in the dawn bounced off of the waves and into his ocular soul.

Whatever Turner painted… the canals of Venice, the open sea, a classic mythological shoreline… Turner was, in fact and without any doubt, painting the Thames. It is impossible to think otherwise. His gift, this obsessive, dutiful ocular obsession, was his ability to translate the personal into the local… and the local into the regional … and the regional into the global. His encyclopedic observational inhalation of the Thames current, of light and shadow, of the sunlight bouncing off of tip and foam, and the dark, swelling abyss of shadow, fed his aesthetic soul with a visual arsenal.

Turner Painted the Thames, and Van Gogh the fields outside his window, and Toulouse-Lautrec the whores and dancers of the Montmarc. Observation and imagination informed the artist, and in turn, that obsessive personalization of that observation ironically made that vision universal.

So here I find myself, upon the shore of the Trinity as the sun rises, observing as a heron breaks the shell of the surface of the river as she rises, and the sun tosses those ripples back at me, like fireworks. Ahead of me, across the shore, the sky separates itself slowly from the ridge of foliage, in ascending shades of grey to blue to taupe and then orange. Behind me, a thick, almost impregnatable swath of branches, leaf and vine rises as if to shield me, and I, in my provincial mind, feel a privileged guest to this most sublime spectacle… and so did Turner, and Van Gogh… and Lautrec, as they recorded each moment in their mind, and through their hand.

Despite this separation of continent and century, what drives a person to creation is an attempt to an almost overriding obsession to put into order this bizarre yet opulent influx of imagery, and to somehow hammer it into order. Titian himself expressed this most concisely when he painted The Flaying of Marsyas. Marsyas stands in for the artist, who challenges the god Apollo to a singing duel. They agree that winner shall do with the loser as he pleases… and Apollo, upon his victory, decides to flay the satyr Marsyas alive. Marsyas, the artist, attempts to surpass the skills of Apollo, the god. What we find out, over and over again, is that when you challenge a god, you inevitably lose, and in the process, expose yourself completely. Marsyas is exposed as the artist as his skin is methodically removed by Apollo, and Titian as he attempts to put to canvas these ripples and glares and dapples, and Van Gogh these real and/or imagined lines, and Lautrec the glint of nightlight upon the sweat of these dancers.

So how am I, with the hum of morning traffic from the interstate less than a mile away, and the wretched odor of a rendering plant upstream, able to muster a challenge to the gods to somehow universalize this heron’s ascendance, and this mathematical dispersion of waves, this smell of earth and wood and weed? How am I that different from Turner, wandering the shores of the Thames at the height of the industrial revolution, with the bellowing of untreated refuse from the factories into the Thames, and the belching of coal ash into the sky, transforming the orange and blue of the dawn into an apocalyptic fire, any different? His vision was a transcendent yearning for an idealistic yet sublime Eden, and mine the same.